Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Transforming School Education 'Inside Out' and 'Outside In'

You have no doubt heard the saying, "it takes a village to raise a child". This saying is typically used to remind us that a person's family is but one aspect of such a "village". Children are also supported in their endeavour by schools, sporting coaches, neighbours and so on. Our hope is always that the "village" will help to shape them for the good. This post tells how one region in Australia is transforming school education in a novel way to achieve these goals.

Foundations for Change in Secular Education

Above: Cessnock High School

I started my teaching career as a Primary school teacher in Public education (for overseas readers, this means government run schools). This was in the city and region where I grew up. I worked there as a teacher and education adviser for 10 years. In recent times we have witnessed how one school is being transformed in an interesting way. I want to focus the new approach being used in difficult schools in Newcastle.

A Case Study of School Transformation

Cessnock is a rural town in Australia about 112km from Sydney. As a child, I spent all of my school holidays with my maternal Grandparents in Cessnock. My Mother grew up there, and her family owned and ran mixed businesses which were called 'General Stores'. This was where most people bought food and other necessities in the days before major supermarkets, shopping centres and online shopping. Cessnock was a relatively poor working class area, where coal mining was the main industry and employer. From the late 1890s until 1964 my Mother's family ran a number of General Stores in the district. They were some of the business and community leaders for a period of 70-80 years.


Above: One of my Grandparents' Stores (Closed in 1964)

My Mother and her brothers attended a government primary school at Kearsley, just two doors from their store in the town. Later they attended Cessnock High School. One of my uncles (my Mother's brother) eventually taught at Cessnock High for many years and was Science Master. In those days, it was a 'tough' school and achievements were mixed. I was posted to the town in the 1990s as a curriculum consultant for the Hunter Education region for English and Literacy learning, and could see that there were many problems. It was a tough place to be a teacher.

In recent times there have been some exciting educational developments taking place in this once difficult school for teachers? Cessnock High has been dramatically transformed! The change has been so significant, that the Department of Education in our State (New South Wales) has decided to adopt and 'role out' the Cessnock model to seek reform in all of the schools in the Hunter Region of NSW, and perhaps the whole state, if not the nation.

The school where teachers once feared having to teach due to student violence and indifference, has undergone an amazing transformation. A dedicated principal, some excellent teachers and new education methods, have led to some of the most improved NAPLAN scores in the country. NAPLAN is an international assessment program that assesses student performance on a common test covering reading, writing, language and numeracy. I sat on the national committee that oversaw these tests for 15 years and understand how difficult it is to affect significant change and improvement.

Surprisingly, Cessnock High now has some of the most improved NAPLAN scores in the country. Its year 12 results have improved by 50 per cent. Education authorities are now considering how the 'Cessnock model' they've adopted, might be rolled out across the region and the State. I find this extraordinary. In a school where violence amongst students was rife and school performance was so poor, there has been an amazing transformation.

While the principal has a key role and is clearly a great leader, he is reluctant to take the credit for it. He explains the change in these words:

"We've been able to build a culture … where there are very few negative behaviours," he said. "The violence doesn't exist at all in our school anymore and school is a calm place." Of course, there is more to it than that!

 A Whole School Approach

The transformation in this school is remarkable. One of the keys reasons appears to be a whole of school approach using a model developed by teachers with Newcastle University staff that they label "Quality Teaching Rounds".

Just what is this model? In essence, it's a structured learning model to improve classroom teaching and student results. It does this by creating small groups of teachers who take turns to observe and critique colleague's lesson against three statements or criteria:

  • Quality teaching: demonstrates a deep understanding of important knowledge and the best ways to communicate this to students.
  • Quality learning environment: ensures the classroom environment is optimized so students can absorb knowledge and learn.
  • Significance: effort is made to ensure lessons are relevant to students' lives and hold significance in order to boost engagement.

Of course, there is much more to the success than these short dot points suggest. Teachers changed the way they work together, and now support each other as they try to transform the school. What has been the outcome? Education standards have risen dramatically, and student behaviour has been transformed.

In the words of the Principal, the "lessons are more engaging, the environment to learn is safer and the learning is more significant." As a result of the changes, the behaviour of students has changed dramatically allowing learning to blossom. And academic achievement has risen markedly

So What's Different?

My definition of education in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' is in short:

"Education is the whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific goal."

There is no doubt that Cessnock High School has created a desire amongst parents, teachers and students to change community life, and in particular classroom behaviour, and application to school and learning. A key feature of the 'Cessnock' approach is that teachers collaborate, and even sit in on each other's lessons to offer feedback and advice. This has proven to be transformative. Teacher willingness to do this has not only been helpful, it has demonstrated they are concerned not only for their own teaching, but even more importantly, the learning and welfare of their students. 

The education authorities in the region are considering how more schools could adopt this approach, allow other teachers to occasionally sit in each others classrooms. The aim in using this approach is the desire to help teachers develop effective teaching practice. The reality is that in the cut and thrust of each day, they are not only teaching their students, they are shaping them for life. 

I'm reminded of my early years as a teacher and recall a colleague who taught next to me in a primary school in Sydney. His class was always out of control and his response was to scream constantly at the students while they just laughed and messed about. I coped by closing my door to shut out the chaos. But this new approach has made me reflect on how I might have been able to help him?

Above: My first school as a teacher

What other refinements might be made to this model?

Central to the 'Cessnock Model' is the visitation of teachers to one another's classrooms. They do this to watch, learn from and help colleagues for example to:

  • Use effective and sound methods,
  • Maintain student attention,
  • Offer feedback on how to support students, and
  • Sharing ideas on more engaging approaches to teaching subject content etc.

But hopefully, in all our schools we might identify other things we could consider. Might we also help one another to apply some additional lenses when trying to maintain classroom control while using good pedagogy. For example, we could also discuss together:

  • How the content and learning relate to and are relevant to student lives?
  • How we might present ideas and curriculum content in more engaging ways?
  • How student non-engagement can be observed? How could we unpack the cause of student disinterest or boredom?
  • How might some behaviour relate to life outside the classroom not just within it; and
  • How could student negative responses and bad behaviour, offer windows into where students stand in terms of personal happiness, life purpose and goals.

A good way for schools to begin exploring a new approach of this type is to reflect on how their school might benefit. Some broad questions might help:

First, what is the balance in classroom and school life, between promoting success in school learning, helping them to grow as people, and also as good citizens?

Second, how might the approach be implemented in a way not only to make them better students, but also to help shape their character, values and ambitions in life.

Third, how might the partnership between teachers and colleagues, be broadened to include student families as we attempt to help them grow and mature as citizens, and shape them to lead lives that will make a difference.

What do you think?


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